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Thinking Out Loud

Faith and Politics: Reflecting with William Stringfellow

by Michael Jinkins | Jan 24, 2017

EDITORIAL NOTE: Last November, Michael mentioned in a special post-election message that he intended to spend considerable time reflecting on our current national and political situation in light of the writings of William Stringfellow, one of the most distinctive Christian voices to emerge in the late twentieth century. Today's blog represents the second to explore aspects of Stringfellow's thought.

Faith and PoliticsBack in November, I pulled down from the shelf some favorite books by William Stringfellow and started going through them again. I found I had underlined virtually all of the sentences in one of these books. The book, The Politics of Spirituality, was published by Westminster Press in 1984. And I can open it to almost any page and see my underlining and marginalia.

When I first read this book, I was the pastor of a thriving Presbyterian church in the rich black-dirt agricultural region of central Texas. Most of my days were spent visiting church members, driving down dusty country roads to their farms, ranches, and homes, or traversing the highways to hospitals in major cities like Fort Worth and Dallas to pray at their bedsides. I preached, taught and worked closely with the staff at the nearby Presbyterian Children's Home. And I was active in the governing courts of our church as the moderator of a division of the presbytery responsible for the pastoral care of pastors and other church staff members.

There were lots of political issues roiling our church and our society at that time. Among the many issues facing the church, no issue loomed larger for congregations in the American Southwest than the "Sanctuary Movement," a movement among Protestant and Roman Catholic churches to provide safe haven for families and individuals fleeing the civil wars and political unrest in Latin America.

At the height of the controversy, I called John Anderson, then the senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Dallas. John was a dear friend, trusted mentor, and one of the most generous and understanding golfing partners I've ever known. In that phone conversation, I asked John what response I should make as a pastor to the difficult political questions facing us. I was probably wringing my hands in rookie anxiety, lamenting having to deal with the conflict and controversy. John asked me, "Isn't it wonderful that we belong to a church that embraces the challenges of our time?" It was a rhetorical question. With that wonderful sonorous voice, John proceeded to tell me that this was my opportunity as pastor to help my people wrestle with their faith, to learn the Bible, and to figure out what it means to live as Christians in the world today. Sit beside them, learn with them, teach them, and lead them, he told me. Then he asked another rhetorical question, "Isn't it great to be Presbyterians?" I knew the answer to that one. "Yes, sir."

So it was that as the controversy raged in newspapers and on television, as debates occupied hours on the floor of our presbytery, I told our congregation that I would like for us to study the issue of "Sanctuary" biblically and from the perspective of Reformed theology. They thought this was a swell idea, and the session (the governing board of the church) led the way by committing to participate.

What I discovered cut two ways. First, it became clear to us that as Christians we had a responsibility to make sure our framing of any political or social situation is appropriate to our biblical faith. It cannot simply be assumed that because we are Christians our response to a political or public policy issue reflects the teachings of Christ. As we examined the concerns that gave rise to the "Sanctuary Movement," in time, we decided that framing the solution in terms of "the granting of sanctuary" was on somewhat shaky ground, that is, from a biblical perspective. Second, it became clear to us that as Christians our response to other human beings caught up in civil wars and political and military conflicts could not simply be to ignore the problem or to relegate responsibility to "things I will just leave to the politicians." Our faith in Jesus demanded a response consistent with his teachings.

It was at this point that our study of the Gospels confronted us with a call to action we could not dismiss. Jesus calls us to live as neighbors to others, all others. The neighborhood of Jesus Christ does not respect boundaries of race, religion, gender or the borders of countries, realms and nation states. The question Jesus asks is not the question of the Pharisee trying to find a loophole in the law: "Who is my neighbor?" Rather, the question Jesus compels us to ask is this: "Am I a neighbor?"*

I don't think I'll ever forget the candor and faithfulness of one of our elders who stayed to talk with me one evening after our Bible study. It was the evening when we realized that the neighborhood of Christ has no boundaries, a fact that might place us on a collision course with civil authorities. Sue Ellen (not her real name) waited for me as I straightened the chairs in the fellowship hall. She wanted to talk on the way to her car. Sue Ellen was the perfect version of the Texas rancher's wife. I don't believe there was anything in her wardrobe that didn't come from Neiman Marcus. I never saw her without pearls. Every year she bought a new Cadillac. She and her husband attended all the soirees at the Petroleum Club, including the annual Tuxedo and Boots Ball. Her big hair was perfectly coiffured, her clothes immaculate, her politics very conservative, and her faith very Calvinistic.

Sue Ellen asked me, "So, Mike, if I'm understanding what we all agreed on tonight, if someone fleeing danger down in Central America makes it to my door, I'm obliged to be their neighbor. Even if our government defines them in such a way that I'm supposed to call the authorities, I should welcome them in the name of Jesus."

I said, "I think that's where we find ourselves. We embody the neighborhood of Jesus. And the neighborhood of Jesus isn't limited by national policies or interests."

"Well, I can't disagree. If that's what God expects of us, then that's our Christian duty." She said this gravely, taking in the consequences. "But, can I ask you something else? Is it okay if I pray that God not bring them to my door?"

I don't think I have ever loved a member of any church I have ever served more than I loved Sue Ellen at that moment. She refused to ignore the claim of the Gospel, but she hoped and prayed she wouldn't have to drink from that cup. That's real faith, really lived.

Probably about now you are wondering what the devil does this story have to do with William Stringfellow and The Politics of Spirituality. This: Among the worn pages and underlined paragraphs of this book, which I read while our church was struggling to find a faithful response to these issues confronting us in the 1980s is an underlined paragraph with emphatic stars in the margins of the page and its own entry in my personal index on the blank pages at the end of the book. That paragraph I shall quote at some length:

"[T]he examples are profuse in the life of Jesus as to the political dimensions of the gospel. Consider Herod's attempt to assassinate the child. Or the healing episodes in which Jesus directly confronts the demonic powers and their effort to wreck creation and ruin human life. And notice how all these specific incidents culminate in that agonizing encounter in the wilderness in which Jesus is tempted by the power of death incarnate as the devil in explicit political terms. ... Jesus in the wilderness was tempted, truly tempted, to become idolatrous of the power of death, thereby rejecting the very Word of God which constituted his being. He transcends and repels the temptations and thus enunciates his Lordship in this world now. That politics is, then, verified in his crucifixion. The politics of the gospel are the politics of the cross." (Stringfellow, The Politics of Spirituality, p. 44)

How else do we arrive at our own crosses, but through the sweat and tears of our own Gardens of Gethsemani, where we pray that God will let this cup pass us by?

Sue Ellen weighed the cost of discipleship, determined to obey if called upon, and hoped she wouldn't have to go through with it. She wasn't itching to be a martyr, or, in fact, to draw any attention to her faith. She prayed that she wouldn't have to drink from this cup.

We also pray this prayer sincerely, yet sincerely knowing that if we have to drain the cup, death can do its worst, but death has no more dominion over us - not in the reign of God, nor in the neighborhood of Jesus Christ. The Spirit who sustained Jesus, sustains us too, in this risen life.

*This clearly is the point of the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:29-37.

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